Tzatziki is a yoghurt based… dip? Sauce? Honestly, it doesn’t really fit into either of those categories neatly. Like hummus, it’s somewhere between a dip, a sauce, and being its own side dish or meze.
I find the Greek term σαλάτα (salata) covers it pretty well. It directly translates to salad, but actually means anything not eaten alone and consisting mostly of non-meat ingredients mixed together – I was on holiday once with someone who ordered a τυροσαλάτα, which translates literally to “cheese salad,” and was surprised to receive a side plate containing a blended mush of soft cheese with oreganum, and not a single lettuce leaf.
Tzatziki is popular throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and something very similar (but distinct!) is used extensively in Indian cuisine, raita. There is also a closely related Slavic version of tzatziki called tarator, but while its ingredients are quite similar, the dish itself is usually very different in taste, feel, and style of eating.
A little bit of Tzatziki history
Linguistically, tzatziki is an English loanword from the Greek τζατζίκι, which comes from the Turkish word cacik (roughly pronounced dje-djig), which itself is likely a Turkified compound of some Arabic or Persian root relating to herbs.
The Turkish version of the word was first documented in the 1800s, so the dish must have existed at least by then, but yoghurt itself has been used as a salata in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine for as long as yoghurt has existed, and I’m absolutely confident that someone thought of putting some cucumber and herbs and spices in yoghurt long before the 1800s.
As one of those dishes that’s eaten all over, there are of course tons of regional and personal variations on tzatziki. The only element always present is the yoghurt, since even the cucumber is sometimes absent.
How to make Tzatziki
The recipe I give here is the combination that I usually make, that I can confidently say will go fantastically with nearly any Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern dish, like the meze meal pictured above, or Greek stuffed peppers!
One important thing to note is that regular plain yoghurt is really not ideal here. Greek yoghurt is distinctly different from regular yoghurt in that it is thoroughly strained of liquid long before reaching a store, making it far thicker and more solid than regular yoghurt, which tends to be somewhat thin. If you can’t get Greek yoghurt then you can make tzatziki with regular yoghurt, but keep an eye out for some of the good stuff next time you’re at the shops!
- 4 heaped tablespoons of thick full-fat, plain Greek yoghurt
- Approx 5cm of a cucumber
- 1 half tsp of paprika (optional)
- Approx 2 tsp salt
- Approx 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 pinch oreganum
- 1 clove of garlic
- Grab a normal-size bowl
- Grate the cucumber into the bowl until you have a big handful
- Place the bowl near the sink
- Gather up the cucumber in your hands, cupping them together like a tennis ball, and hold the cucumber over the sink
- Squeeze the cucumber in your hands, hard, trying not to let the actual grated cucumber slip out. You need to squeeze the water out, and you’ll find that there’s a lot of water! You may want to try save the juice to mix with regular water if you enjoy cucumber slices in your water.
- When you’re done, the cucumber should be very compacted, almost dry, and fit snugly in the palm of one hand. Use the other hand to tip any cucumber juice out of your bowl, then deposit the cucumber in the bowl.
- Add about 4 heaped tablespoons of yoghurt to the cucumber, and mix the two together. You can vary the amount of yoghurt depending on how much you like cucumber - I often add less yoghurt or more cucumber so that the resulting tzatziki is thicker.
- Peel and then finely dice a single clove of garlic (or half a clove if you’re not such a garlic fan).
- Add the garlic, a pinch of oreganum, a few grinds of black pepper, and a very generous few grinds of salt.
- Optionally add a dash of paprika as well (approximately half a teaspoon).
- Taste the tzatziki. If you can’t taste the salt properly, add more salt - I find that it’s getting the right amount of salt, more than anything else, that really defines the dish. At this stage you should also decide if you want to taste any of the other herbs or spices more distinctly, and add them if so. If you feel you want more garlic, get the salt right first - you probably just need more salt.
- Serve right away.
Last thoughts on Greek Tzatziki
Tzatziki keeps better depending on how close to actual Greek yoghurt your yoghurt is, but generally speaking it won’t stay good for much longer than a single night in the fridge. It’s very quick to make, so it’s best to prepare right before eating, while your meal does its final bit of simmering. It can of course be scaled up or down as much as you need, but the trick of using the same bowl for the grated cucumber and for serving the tzatziki won’t work if you need to make a lot of it!
One of the more popular variants, that brings it closer to Indian raita, is to add chopped mint leaves, and of course, there are tons of different herbs and spices that would suit as well. One word of advice though: don’t use dried rosemary, make sure it’s fresh if you want to use it for this. Dried rosemary is fairly hard, and can be unpleasantly spiky if not cooked into a dish!
You can also add a squeeze of lemon, or even some lemon zest, if you want something more suited to seafood or more capable of standing on its own as a dish.
If you’ve got a favourite way of preparing tzatziki, let me know! I’m always keen to try a twist on what I’m used to.